Fundamental Saudi shifts and the change coming to the Middle East
The obvious questions include whether the convergence is exclusively one of political orientations, or whether there is a plan with mechanisms and instruments, distribution of roles, and assignment of responsibilities, be they political, economic, or otherwise. The questions also include Russia’s role in this context, and to what extent Europe can exclude itself as it adapts to the new US policy that radically departs from those of the Obama administration, Europe’s partner in accommodating Iran.
The best-case scenario envisions that a grand bargain between the key regional and international players is in the preparation stage, based on preempting any devastating regional war through accords that include Iran, the Saudi-led Sunni bloc, and Israel. Those dreaming of this outcome are many. They have crossed the traditional barriers that have made the “Palestinian cause” an excuse for preventing any peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, and they are sick of sectarian wars that have ravaged the region and shattered the hopes and dreams of ordinary Iranians and Arabs.
By contrast, there are two other camps, which can be said to comprise realists: One argues that the grand bargain requires a grand war. They say there is no room for normalization of relations without such wars. What is clear, however, is that all players in the region want to keep these wars away from their own home soil. Iran is not fighting on its territories, nor is Israel. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are building for the future and want to keep all battles firmly away from their lands. This means, then, that the battlefield will be in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon — and perhaps Lebanon is the only place where Israel could become directly involved.
The other camp argues that Iran is not about to go to war with Israel, even through Hezbollah, because the historical truce-like relationship between the Persians and the Jews will not collapse just because of a convergence between Washington and Riyadh at this moment in history. Accordingly, the Trump administration would have no choice but to consent to the project for a “Persian Crescent,” developed with the consent of both the US and Israeli establishments a long time ago.
A key question in all these scenarios is: Where does the US really stand? What is the margin of trust in the administration and its ability to deliver on its promises and threats? Furthermore, where does Israel stand in the same balance of war and peace?
According to a source close to the White House, Donald Trump learned a valuable lesson from Iraq, namely that the US must not be in the front row of the region’s wars. The source said the US would support but not lead, instead placing on the Sunni bloc the burden and the responsibility to fight terrorism. The US would back Saudi Arabia in its fight against terrorism and in its quest to modernize, reform, and purge itself of corruption, the source said, “but the US will not be in the front row.”
The source explained that US strategy on Iran, the Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah is “economic isolation.” Washington is determined to pressure the Europeans into ending their economic dealings with Iran, or else force their companies to pay a price.
With regard to the IRGC and Hezbollah, the US strategy goes beyond economic isolation and sanctions. The ultimate goal is to dismantle the Iranian model of creating a dual structure shared by regular armies and paramilitaries along the lines of the IRGC and Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree, the Popular Mobilization forces in Iraq.
The source said the Trump administration had a strategy for confrontation, but it was not based on war as a first choice, rather on economic and political pushback against Iran, through the designation of the IRGC and Hezbollah in parallel with a campaign to enlist European powers led by Germany, and by “providing support for all that Saudi Arabia sets out to do at this juncture.”
The US source stressed that Saudi Arabia was not alone, but was backed by a Sunni alliance of the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. The US was “quietly coordinating” with these countries on more than one level.
However, Egypt has made it clear, in the words of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, that it does not intend to take action against Hezbollah. El-Sisi’s positions are reminiscent of Egypt’s stance on the Arab Coalition’s intervention in Yemen; it poured cold water on expectations it would join the intervention. Egypt here is singing a different tune from the US-GCC camp, which believes the time has come to stand up to Iran and Hezbollah, according to the US official, though not militarily at the time being. After his remarks on Hezbollah, however, El-Sisi was keen to mend the damage his statements caused to relations with the Saudis and Emiratis, proclaiming that the security of the Gulf was a “red line” and that Egypt was opposed to Iranian meddling.
Now Israel — is it willing and prepared to deal a military blow to Hezbollah? One Hezbollah leader has been quoted as saying that if the Saudis are betting on war between Israel and Hezbollah, then they will be disappointed. According to all indications, Hezbollah is not prepared to use its “resistance” arms against Israel, nor is Israel currently prepared for war with Hezbollah, as long as it is getting everything it wants in Syria’s Golan thanks to Russia, and as long as resolution 1701 continues to rein in Hezbollah with its consent. The matter of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is on hold until further notice, it seems, pending the progression of the Iranian-Israel dynamic toward either containment or confrontation.
Israel is not in a hurry to substitute the historical truce between Jews and (Shiite Muslim) Persians with an accord with Sunni Arabs, who it has always seen as the enemy seeking to restore Palestine. Otherwise, it does not mind peace and normalization with the Sunni bloc as long as no concessions in Palestine are asked of it as a price. In reality, however, non-peace is convenient for Israel, which can continue to claim it is in danger of war to gain international sympathy. Israel may therefore not be in a hurry to make peace with the Sunni bloc or to build an alliance with the Sunnis against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Riyadh has identified Iran, not Israel, as the threat to its national security. Tehran may now calculate that its interests lie in reversing the export of its revolution — or bank on continued Russian support and do the opposite.
The US strategy to confront Iran and Hezbollah is not of a military nature, as long as Israel is not a player. So far, the US strategy is confined to sanctions and isolation, and pressure on the Europeans to isolate Iran in parallel with upgrading ties with Saudi Arabia from resentment to a full alliance.
The litmus test for the US-Iranian/Hezbollah dynamic is not Lebanon, but remains Syria and Iraq. In these two countries, the Trump administration can do a lot to rein in Iran’s gains on the ground, and prevent Iran and its allies from holding on to the arc or crescent cutting through the territories recaptured from Daesh, creating a corridor that links up to the Holy Land, perhaps part of that truce-like dynamic with Israel.
The Trump administration believes embargoing Hezbollah in Lebanon is an easier task than retaking the Syrian-Iraqi corridor from Iran. The administration believes this approach could succeed and could be taken up by the Europeans, bearing in mind the Russians would veto any such bid at the Security Council level.
Washington agrees with its allies in the Gulf that Hezbollah has become an enemy, waging direct war on their interests. Washington supports any measures by the Gulf countries against Hezbollah, believing the Saudi escalation together with the US measures are enough to send a message to both Iran and Hezbollah that the status quo needs to change — now through “civilian” measures but, if not, then later through “non-civilian” ones.
The problem here is one of confidence in US promises, and even strategy, that many in the Arab region and the Middle East have today. What’s new in the equation, however, is not the vacillating and furtive US policy, but the new direction in Saudi Arabia.
Among the key challenges the new Saudi Arabia faces, besides its domestic purge of corruption and complacent attitudes, is how to forge relations with the peoples of Arab countries that have become an arena for Iranian wars with Saudi Arabia, led by Yemen and Lebanon, at a time when the outcome in Syria and Iraq so far favors Iran.
In other words, the new language adopted by Saudi Arabia must take into account its reception among the people of Lebanon and Yemen, and elsewhere. Yemen is different from Lebanon given the direct implications for Saudi national security; where Iran is working with the Houthi militia there to create a forward base for the destabilization of the Kingdom. Riyadh has a right to defend its national security, particularly after the launch of Iranian-made ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital from Yemeni territory. However, the people of Yemen remain the most important element to win the war in their country. This requires a new language, the kind of language Saudi Arabia uses to characterize its own future, and must be extended to Yemen’s human infrastructure with respect and boldness.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia must evaluate the effect of Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s resignation, announced from Riyadh, instead of downplaying the implications. All of Lebanon has felt insulted, including those who fully understand it is not logical or reasonable for the Kingdom to continue to bless a government coalition that brings together its Lebanese ally with its enemy, who is implicated in the war on its border. The Lebanese continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the impossible contradiction between Hezbollah in government and Hezbollah the paramilitary organization fighting Saudi Arabia on behalf of Iran.
Saudi Arabia has adopted historical shifts and developed a new foreign policy based on Iran, not Israel, being the threat to its national security, without hiding or denying this implication. Perhaps clarifying the seriousness of the partnership between the Trump administration and the Saudi-led Sunni bloc, and their determination to stand up to Iran through real action against the IRGC and Hezbollah, will prompt Tehran to revise its course. Tehran may understand that the truce-like dynamic with Israel is not permanent, and that its interests amid all this lie in a radical reversal of its bid to export its Islamic revolutionary and republican model. But then it may do the opposite and double down, believing that its Russian ally will remain faithful, and that its gains and investments in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon are worth the risk.
In conclusion, there can be no return to the status quo after all these earthquakes. Some kind of change is coming to the Middle East, either under this or other scenarios, be they peaceful or otherwise, before a grand bargain matures.
• Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a columnist for the Huffington Post and Arab News and served as columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat daily for 28 years. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham
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